Washington State team preview

At first glance, the Cougars simply look like just one of three 0-4 teams within the Pac-10. But with a few bounces here and there, Washington State could be one of two 4-0 teams in the Pac-10 and the proud owner of a national ranking.

With the exception of their game against Stanford, the Cougars have had a lead in the late stages of the fourth quarter in all of their games. They've been done in by costly interceptions and shoddy secondary play, but they'll bring one of the most potent offenses in the nation to the Coliseum this Saturday. The Cougars rank in the top ten in both total and scoring offense, and are in the top 20 in both rushing and passing.

Cougars on Offense

Quarterback – #10 Alex Brink

Josh Swogger's broken foot midway through the 2004 season opened the door for Alex Brink to take the reigns of the Cougar offense, and Brink has been in the driver's seat ever since. He doesn't get a lot of publicity, partly due to the fact that Jerome Harrison and Jason Hill have been so good this year, and partly because he plays in Pullman, Washington, but he is a very competent quarterback. He's still at his best, however, when he isn't asked to throw the ball all over the field and win games with his arm. Through seven games, Brink has thrown for 1,978 yards and 18 touchdowns, while completing over 55% of his passes. Of course, the problem for Brink is it seems that the other 45% of his passes have been interceptions. He's thrown ten picks on the season, all of them coming in four games. He threw two each against Idaho, Stanford and Cal, and four against Oregon State. In each of the first three games this season, all Cougar wins, Brink was never asked to throw the ball more than 30 times. In those games, he had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 9-2, completed over 60% of his passes and had a quarterback rating of over 100. In the last four games, all Cougar losses, Brink threw the ball just under 40 times per game, had a 9-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio, completed just over 50% of his passes and had a quarterback rating of not-very-good. The best example of what can happen when too much responsibility is put on the arm of Brink came against Oregon State. In that game, Brink completed 31 of 59 passes for a school-record 531 yards, but also threw just one touchdown pass and four costly interceptions. Against the Trojans, Brink could put up similar numbers if the running game is shut down early. Most teams go into their match up with USC expecting to throw the ball early and often and Pete Carroll's defenses have established a pattern of giving up yards between the 20's, but keeping opposing offenses out of the end zone. Brink isn't much of a runner. He ran well against UCLA's defense (six rushes, 45 yards), but after facing Isaiah Stanback, Brink will look like a statue. The Cougars haven't had problems putting points on the board this season and Alex Brink is a big reason why, but he isn't yet at that level where you truly fear him making great decisions on every snap and picking apart your defense all game long.

Running Backs – #1 Jerome Harrison, #35 DeMaundray Woolridge

Jerome Harrison's stat line against USC last season? 11 carries, 15 yards, one reception, one yard. Since that contest, 11 games ago, Harrison hasn't been held under 110 yards rushing. He has been an absolute star for the Cougar offense this season. Through seven games, Harrison has already racked up 1,163 yards and 11 touchdowns on 185 carries, averaging 6.3 yards per attempt. His 166 yards per game rank him second in the nation. He has made the UCLA defense his personal whipping boys, with 507 rushing yards and five touchdowns against the blue and gold over the past two games. Harrison is much better with the ball outside the tackles, but the Cougars will let him loose anywhere along the line of scrimmage. Standing under six feet tall, he has the ability to get lost among those big lineman, and has the speed where, once you finally get sight of him, he's already into the secondary. The Trojan defensive line, a question mark heading into the season, has performed exceptionally well so far and will be a big part in shutting Harrison down. It will be very interesting to watch how the Cougars use their running back as the game goes along. The Trojans present a defense that can match up with Harrison's speed, so containing the outside runs shouldn't be a problem. What will be worth watching is if the Cougars choose to pound the ball at the interior of USC's defense. Harrison is very durable, and hasn't put the ball on the ground in two seasons, but if he is stopped early, will the Cougars abandon the running game? History says that is not a smart idea. Of course, against the Trojans, recent history says pretty much anything you try is pretty much doomed. DeMaundray Woolridge is a little bigger than Harrison. He received a few carried at the beginning of the season, but with Harrison as the go-to guy, Woolridge was relegated to strictly a back up role.

Wide Receivers – #83 Jason Hill, #6 Marty Martin, #88 Trandon Harvey, #3 Brandon Gibson, #2 Chris Jordan

Much like Derek Hagan at Arizona State, Jason Hill is the one Cougar receiver that you worry about beating you, especially now that Michael Bumpus (30 catches, 357 yards, two touchdowns) will miss the game with an injury. On the season, Hill has 42 receptions for 826 yards and eight touchdowns and his 137 yards per game are good for second in the nation. He is coming off a game against Cal where he put up silly numbers. Hill hauled in six passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns of 38, 63 and 38 yards. He also had another reception that went for 80 yards. He has the speed and ability to get open against any cornerback and any defensive scheme. Again, like Hagan, it may be best to just let Hill get his catches and keep him from running with the ball for big gains. Trandon Harvey will be the second leading wide receiver heading into the game against the Trojans, with ten catches for 179 yards. Brandon Gibson has five grabs for 128 yards, including a 66-yard touchdown against Cal. Chris Jordan has a touchdown catch among his seven receptions for 73 yards, while Marty Martin has been a non-factor this season, with just three catches, one of which went for negative yards. All of the Cougar receivers can run, but none of them are jump-ball types who can go up above a cornerback in the end zone, mostly because none of them stand over 6'2". This will be a good corps of receivers for Josh Pinkard to make his first start at cornerback against. With Justin Wyatt hopefully matched up against Jason Hill, Pinkard should be able to hold his own against any of the other Cougar receivers.

Tight End – #81 Troy Bienemann

With the injury to Bumpus, Troy Bienemann becomes the Cougars' second-best receiving weapon. On the season, Bienemann has 20 receptions for 259 yards and two touchdowns. Whereas the Trojans seem content to use their tight ends in the flat, Bienemann will run his routes downfield and will need to be picked up by a safety. He is a big target and won't be shut down easily, but tight ends don't seem to be giving the Trojan defense fits this year, the way they have in the past.

Offensive Line – LT #70 Bobby Byrd, LG #73 Sean O'Connor, C #66 Nick Milhauser, RG #76 Norvell Holmes, RT #55 Charles Harris

Anytime you have a running back rush for 100 yards in ten consecutive games, you know you're doing something right. This Cougar line has the ability to block defenders just by using its collective height. Led by Bobby Byrd, at 6'7" and Charles Harris, at 6'6", the line provides a great shield for Jerome Harrison as he makes his way past the line of scrimmage. If the USC offense wasn't the USC offense, Washington State's 5.5 yards per carry average would look pretty amazing. The line has also performed pretty well in pass protection, allowing just nine sacks on the year, four of which came last weekend against Cal. This is the kind of offensive line, like Notre Dame's, that can keep time of possession skewed in their favor and keep the Trojan defense on the field. The Trojan defensive line will need to have a big day against the Cougar front.

Cougars on Defense

Defensive Line – #94 Mkristo Bruce, #40 Aaron Johnson, #92 Fevaea'i Ahmu, #13 Adam Braidwood

Mkristo Bruce is the star of the defensive line. His eight sacks on the season put him into a tie for the conference lead and are a big chunk of the Cougars' conference-leading 26 sacks. But not only does he lead the team in sacks, he also leads them with 44 tackles, which is almost unheard of from a defensive lineman. Bruce is just a great all-around player who does everything well. He can rush the passer with speed or technique, shut down the running game to his side of the field and chase the play from sideline to sideline. With linebacker Will Derting missing the game due to injury, Bruce becomes the number one threat for the Cougar defense. On the other side of the line, Adam Braidwood has also performed exceptionally well. Teams get so preoccupied with shutting Bruce down that Braidwood will sometimes get overlooked, but make no mistake, he is a player. Of his 21 tackles on the season, 5.5 are sacks and 6.5 are tackles for loss, to go along with two forced fumbles and a team-high six quarterback hits. Braidwood is a good pass rusher with a quick first step up the field, so I wouldn't mind watching the Trojans give LenDale White more than a few chances running toward Braidwood's side. Aaron Johnson and Fevaea'i Ahmu, because of the play of the defensive ends, are normally more than happy to just plug holes in the running game. Johnson has been in on 16 tackles this season with only one coming behind the line of scrimmage. But at 6'6," he is a threat to knock down any short pass over the middle. He is also the only Cougar to block a kick this season. Ahmu has 21 tackles and one sack on the year. As a unit, the Cougar defensive line has allowed over 1,000 yards on the season, 143 yards per game, 3.5 yards per carry and eight rushing touchdowns. If they keep the Trojans under those averages, they'll deserve some sort of medal.

Linebackers – #42 Scott Davis, #52 Greg Trent, #49 Steve Dildine

Standout linebacker Will Derting will be sitting this game out with an injury and his absence leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the field for the Cougar defense. Scott Davis, Greg Trent and Steve Dildine are fine linbackers, but Derting is the type of player that changes your offensive strategy and his absence is even more notable when you replace him with a true freshman in Greg Trent. Scott Davis will be the leader of the linebackers, but all three are quite similar. In fact, they each have 43 tackles on the year and come Saturday, none of them will be able keep the Trojan tailbacks in check for 60 minutes. Greg Trent is the only one with a sack, Davis has 3.5 tackles for loss and Dildine has recovered a fumble but non are usually responsible for making any game- changing plays. With the pressure that the Cougars are able to create with their front four, the linebackers are asked to help in the running game and dropping back into pass coverage. There's no doubt, however, that head coach Bill Doba has seen what can happen when you put constant pressure on Matt Leinart, so I wouldn't be surprised to see the linebackers coming after the quarterback more than they normally do on Saturday. If the Cougars choose to rush only four against the Trojan offensive line, Leinart could have another very proficient day.

Cornerbacks – #4 Wally Dada, #21 Alex Teems

Alex Teems and Wally Dada are both seniors who have developed into pretty good cover corners. They both stand at about 6' and are athletic enough to stay with most receivers. Like the Trojans', the Cougar cornerbacks aren't as bad as their numbers would indicate. The system they play in allows for yard to be gained, but they haven't been able to keep opponents out of the end zone, especially late in games. They have allowed five fourth-quarter touchdown passes in their four conference losses, blowing late leads at Oregon State and Cal, and at home against UCLA. Teems and Dada have the ability to make plays on the ball in the passing game or run support. Dada has 37 tackles, one interception, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Teems has 29 tackles, one interception and three pass deflections. Matt Leinart has thrown for yards and touchdowns against this pair before, and it shouldn't be too much of a problem for him again this Saturday.

Safeties – #23 Husain Abdullah, #37 Eric Frampton

Eric Frampton is the leader of the Cougar secondary. He's tied for the team lead with 44 tackles and one fumble recovery. His six pass deflections lead the team and he returned his lone interception 36 yards for a touchdown against Nevada. Husain Abdullah has 32 tackles, three pass deflections, one forced fumble and a team-high two interceptions. The Cougar secondary has allowed 257 yards per game through the air and 17 total touchdowns. Neither of the safeties will intimidate receivers coming over the middle and this is the type of secondary that Steve Smith seems to play so well against. He hasn't had a big game in a few weeks and against the Cougars, he'll be able to use his speed against either cornerback and feel comfortable finding space in the middle of the field.

Cougars on Special Teams

Kicker – #18 Graham Siderius, #27 Loren Langley

Graham Siderius had been handling the kickoff duties for the first six games of the season, but Loren Langley took over against Cal and took care of kickoffs as well as field goal attempts. Siderius has 43 kickoffs on the season, forcing 13 touchbacks and allowing opponents to start at their 23 yard-line on average. Against Cal, Langley didn't get a single kick into the end zone, and although the Bears never started with great field position, they had a chance to return every kick. When it comes to field goals, however, Langley has been near perfect this season. He has converted on 10 of 11 attempts with a long of 48.

Punter – #8 Kyle Basler

After a remarkable showing again Texas in the Holiday Bowl two seasons ago, Kyle Basler has looked very normal this season. He is averaging just over 40 yards on 31 punts, putting three in the end zone, forcing three touchbacks, settling just five inside the 20 and getting one kick blocked. Every game teams say they aren't going to punt to Reggie Bush, and every game he manages to get at least one attempt on a punt return. If Basler allows Reggie to field his punts in the middle of the field, a Bush punt return score may as well be part of the Trojans' game plan.

Kick Returner – #3 Lorenzo Bursey #86 Brandon Gibson

All eyes will be on the Trojan kick coverage unit once again as kicker Troy Van Blarcom will put the ball in play to Lorenzo Bursey and Brandon Gibson. Neither of them has demonstrated the ability to go the distance, with both of their long returns being less than 40 yards. Bursey is averaging 22.1 yards on his 12 attempts, while Gibson has gone an average of 19 yards on his eight attempts.

Punt Returner – #88 Trandon Harvey #3 Lorenzo Bursey

Injured wideout Michael Bumpus has handled 17 of the team's 20 punt return opportunities. His absence leaves a hole in the punt return team that will probably be filled by Trandon Harvey or Lorenzo Bursey. Harvey doesn't have a return this season and Bursey's two attempts have netted only six yards. The Trojans' punt coverage unit has had occasional lapses this season, but if they give up big returns to the Cougars' second and third string returners, something is truly wrong.

Outlook

On paper, this game looks like it could turn into an offensive shootout, but I think the Trojan defense will use this game to start showing how well they can play defense. Not only will the new BCS demotion have them fired up, but Washington State's defense is one that the Trojan offense will be able to dictate the tempo of the game against. The Trojans should be able to finally control the time of possession, especially since the Cougars' offense consistently tries to take advantage of big plays down the field. If the Trojan secondary can keep the ball in front of them, Alex Brink isn't a guy who is going to complete 25 consecutive short-range passes. The Cougars are a very good football team and it's a shame that they haven't been able to hang on for a couple wins in the Pac-10, but key injuries and the Trojans' homecoming game will be too much for them to overcome. USC spent its first seven games dragging the sled up the hill. This weekend, the Trojans finally get to enjoy the ride down the back half of the schedule.


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